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God Provides a Wife for Isaac -- the odd tale of Genesis 24

God can be trusted with the details of His promises.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 24

God gave Abraham a promise, and God would keep that promise even after Abraham had passed from the earth. We can trust God with our children, our grandchildren, and world events long after we’re gone.

“Lord, God of my master Abraham,” he prayed... (25:12)

This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.

Disclaimer and Overview

This is our last lesson in Genesis for a long time. Genesis, part 2, won’t come around until 2018-19, and they haven’t written their outlines that far (I called). If I were planning these lessons, I would divide Genesis in Chapter 25 after the death of Abraham (verse 19) and let “part 2” begin with the account of Isaac. So that’s what I’m going to do in my group. The Old Testament narrative is dominated by three men: Abraham, Moses, and David. We could certainly argue that other people are equally important (Noah, Joseph, and Samuel come to mind), but those are the dominant characters. Even though our lesson ends with finding a wife for Abraham’s son, I plan on going through chapter 25 so we can get a conclusion to Abraham’s life.


Getting Started: Things to think About

Founding Fathers.

If your group is into history, you might start with a “founding fathers” segment. I think it would be easiest to go with United States, but every group/company/organization has a founding father. Groups take on the identity of their founder(s). America was blessed by God with statesmen par excellence in Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. They laid the framework for our republic, the nature of our government, the rights and responsibilities of all parties, and our inalienable freedoms. Pick America or another group and talk about the legacy of its founders.


Arranged Marriages.

If your group is into romances, you might have some fun with arranged marriages, which is the background for the lesson. Abraham basically tells his servant to go find a wife for his son. Can you imagine doing that today? Just the idea lends itself to all sorts of funny and scary conversations! Note that an arranged marriage is different than a “forced marriage”; in arranged marriages, the families and the future spouses all agree on the arrangement! It is still a common practice in large parts of the world.


Prayer / A Brick and a Suitcase.

This is a variation on an idea in the Quicksource. Abraham’s servant take some pretty audacious steps! But he was trusted, and he was taught to trust Abraham’s God. Following God is like a journey (hence the suitcase); we don’t always know where we’re going, but if we “travel light” we can make the trip. Why would anyone pack a brick for a journey? It is quite literally dead weight! It helps you in no way except to slow you down and tire you out. The brick represents sin. If we want to follow God, respond to His leading, and go where He sends, we need to “clean out our suitcase” so to speak. Simple but effective idea.

Chain of Successors / Sacred Trust.

Another illustration that might work for you if you have a bunch of movie buffs is the idea of a chain of successors. For example, on the science-fiction front is The City of Ember, in which the mayors of the last city on earth passed down a very important secret to their successor. Then a mayor died unexpectedly and the secret was lost, almost causing the entire city to perish. I remember watching a documentary about Coca-Cola and the passionate dedication to which the leaders of that company protected their company vision and their secret formula. There are some classic kung fu movies about the old master passing down all he has learned to his future successor. And so on.


What’s the point? Abraham wasn’t going to bless the world; his descendants would. If any of his descendants proved to be a “weak link” the whole chain could be lost. No pressure! If Isaac didn’t have a wife who would embrace Abraham’s vision for their children, all would be lost. We often call this a sacred trust, and it applies to so many areas of life. It works in government, it works in academia, it works in industry—when a link in a chain of successors decides to turn his back on the vision of the founders, all of the work that has been done to that point can be lost. Sometimes such a change is necessary (David’s illustration about Blockbuster and Netflix comes to mind), and sometimes such a change is disastrous. If you think this subject might send your class down rabbit trails of complaints about what’s going on in our country, then don’t use this illustration!

 

Part 1: The Assignment (Genesis 24:1-9)

Abraham was now old, getting on in years, and the Lord had blessed him in everything. 2 Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his household who managed all he owned, “Place your hand under my thigh, 3 and I will have you swear by the Lord, God of heaven and God of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live, 4 but will go to my land and my family to take a wife for my son Isaac.” 5 The servant said to him, “Suppose the woman is unwilling to follow me to this land? Should I have your son go back to the land you came from?” 6 Abraham answered him, “Make sure that you don’t take my son back there. 7 The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from my native land, who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘I will give this land to your offspring’—he will send his angel before you, and you can take a wife for my son from there. 8 If the woman is unwilling to follow you, then you are free from this oath to me, but don’t let my son go back there.” 9 So the servant placed his hand under his master Abraham’s thigh and swore an oath to him concerning this matter.

You’ll spend most of your group time reading the passages (especially if you plan on going through chapter 25 like I do), so all you can really do is point out a few highlights. As before, the story speaks for itself. If you have invested yourself in these lessons, your heart should swell when you read about the now-old Abraham wanting to take care of his son in his final days. Sarah has gone on to be the Lord, and all he has left is to provide for his son and commit Isaac’s future to God.


First—we have the strange “place your hand under my thigh” in v. 2. Be cautious how you explain this! I’ll give you the straight scoop because, well, I don’t know. The Hebrew word for thigh comes from a root for “soft.” It can refer to the outside (where the sword was worn) or to the inside (the loins). So, this could mean that Abraham’s servant had to put his hand under Abraham’s leg while he sat, but I think it’s more likely that the servant had to put his hand in between Abraham’s legs. That is not a normal oath, think of it in terms of the seriousness and nature of the oath. It’s about continuing Abraham’s line (procreation). If I’m the servant, I’m not forgetting or breaking that oath!


Then we have the complaint about the Canaanites. Abraham juxtaposes that reference with the name of the Lord, Yahweh, indicating that their false religion was the primary concern. Abraham uses the same construction as “thou shalt not” from the Ten Commandments, making this very serious. Abraham wanted a wife for Isaac that he could trust, so he sent for a woman from his own family, namely the family that stayed behind in Haran. You might remember from the end of chapter 22 that Abraham learned his brother had been blessed with many children and grandchildren, and that must have stuck in his mind.

The servant asks some wise questions. I’m sure he’s extremely worried about getting this important task wrong! And Abraham was extremely clear in his answers, something I appreciate. If you do the math, this means that Isaac was the only patriarch who never left the Promised Land. Abraham assured his servant that God would help him in his task, and because Abraham had lived his faith so openly, the servant understood and trusted.

This leads to all sorts of opportunities for discussion and illustration!

  • Finding a spouse is a big deal! If you’re single—where do people go around here to “meet someone” of the opposite gender? If you’re married and have kids—what are you doing to help your kids find a spouse? Have you thought about the type of person that would be best for your child (or grandchild)? Are you praying for that future spouse? If none of that applies, have you ever been on a blind date? How did that go? That leads to the big question: how do/can we help young people find a spouse in today’s world? Matchmaking is not always looked upon well, and dating sites are perilous . . .

  • Why was Abraham so insistent that Isaac not marry a Canaanite? What problems could that have created? How does this relate to Paul’s message about being “equally yoked”? I think Paul and Abraham shared the same priority here, that we should guide our children to marry Christians.

  • What can we learn from the servant? He is given a ridiculously difficult task! Walk through his approach—the details he asks for, the willingness he shows to follow directives, the faith he embraces, and the practical steps he takes to get it done. This leads me back to the main point I am taking from this lesson—if God has made a promise, He has already worked it out from the big picture down to the smallest details.

I’m not sure what to say about never learning the servant’s name. We can speculate on who it is, but it is clear that God does not want us to know. I think the emphasis is to remain on Abraham throughout, but I sure think very highly of this unnamed man!

 

Part 2: The Prayer (Genesis 24:10-14)

10 The servant took ten of his master’s camels, and with all kinds of his master’s goods in hand, he went to Aram-naharaim, to Nahor’s town. 11 At evening, the time when women went out to draw water, he made the camels kneel beside a well outside the town. 12 “Lord, God of my master Abraham,” he prayed, “make this happen for me today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 I am standing here at the spring where the daughters of the men of the town are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the girl to whom I say, ‘Please lower your water jug so that I may drink,’ and who responds, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels also’—let her be the one you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”

Abraham’s servant is all kinds of clever. He pulls out all the stops to find a woman :). He takes his camels to a well outside the town, knowing that just about all of the eligible maids will come that way at some point. Yes, married women would also come to draw water, but more often than not the younger (single) women of a household would be sent on a task like this. In verse 12, the servant asks for God’s help. Note that he says Yahweh. There’s a bit of a pagan influence in that he brings up Abraham in the prayer, indicating that the prayer would be more likely answered when connected to Abraham. The servant has likely continued to believe in his pantheon, putting Yahweh as Abraham’s patron god. I sure hope that changed with this experience!


The prayer is simple, humble, and beautiful. The servant wanted nothing for himself other than to fulfill the task given by Abraham. He gives God a very simple request. In my teachings on prayer, I tend to discourage Christians from trying to be an oracle (making yes-or-no demands) because God has ways of answering our prayers that we have never considered. But this is an extraordinary circumstance. Abraham’s servant had to get this right, and he only had one shot at it. He needed help, and he needed it quickly!

 

Part 3: The Answer (Genesis 24:15-17)

15 Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah—daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor—coming with a jug on her shoulder. 16 Now the girl was very beautiful, a virgin—no man had been intimate with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jug, and came up. 17 Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me have a little water from your jug.”

And God provided that help, even while the servant was still praying! Offering to draw water for a stranger would not have been uncommon; offering to draw water additionally for 10 camels would have been extremely rare, and a lot of work (see the math below)! That’s the sort of character Abraham would have desired in a daughter-in-law, so it was an excellent request. Needless to say, Rebekah (introduced in chapter 22) fit the bill, and the chapter goes on to explain that Abraham’s servant “claimed” her in a heartbeat. Wise decision!


What happens next? Although there is a lot of repetition, it’s worth reading the rest of the story. Abraham’s servant gives her valuable jewelry, and when her family sees it they immediately know what’s going on: a proposal of marriage. They showed the servant great hospitality, and he told them the whole story—placing heavy emphasis on the role of Yahweh (equally important to gauge her reaction to this God she may or may not believe in).


Rebekah’s family consents to the marriage (as was common, the bride herself was not consulted) but asks for a 10-day stay. This was probably to confirm the servant’s story and make sure they had Rebekah protected from potential abuse. The fact that they gave her the opportunity to override their request speaks volumes. But they did send along an entourage, including her nurse, just to be safe!


Isaac loved Rebekah, and this would have given Abraham great comfort. Chapter 25 goes on to say that Abraham married again and had more children. Though he left everything to Isaac, he blessed these other sons and sent them away from Isaac east. One branch, the Midianites, would give hospitality to Moses in the wilderness. Abraham died a happy and fulfilled man, and Ishmael returned to help Isaac bury him in Sarah’s tomb. I’ll try to remember to explain the “gathered to his people” reference when we get back to Genesis in 2018!

 

Aside: Interesting Tidbits

Camels were not domesticated in Palestine until about 1200 BC, long after these events. But there is evidence of such in Arabia a thousand years earlier.


Camels only drink as much water as they need, and their unique build causes them to lose less water than most creatures. But they still need 5-10 gallons of water a day! If it’s been a few days, each camel would need 25 gallons, which means that Rebekah offered to draw more than 80 jugs from the well!!!


Water Jugs and Camels. Most jugs from this era did not hold more than 3 gallons of water (think about carrying 3 milk gallons), which made the trip to the well at least a daily thing (and bathing would be unheard of). In hot conditions, an inactive person still needs at least a gallon of water a day to drink, and that doesn’t count food preparation, cleaning, and the needs of your animals. See how quickly that adds up!


The Urim and Thummim functioned as “yes-or-no” answers to prayer, but there are very few other examples of God accepting this kind of oracle request; you can find them in Num 16:28-30 (Korah’s rebellion), Judges 6:36-40 (Gideon), 1 Sam 6:7-12 (Philistines and the Ark), 1 Sam 12:16-17 (Samuel and a storm).


Most towns were built next to springs. Springs such as this once was often became wells as people depleted the spring and had to start digging for more water.


Betrothal gifts were very common from the groom’s parents to the bride’s, acknowledging the “value” that family would be losing in labor. They also spoke of the groom’s family’s wealth, a comforting thought for a nervous dad!


“His mother’s tent” is an important reference. As the matron of the clan, Sarah would have had her own tent with her own servants and possessions. By taking Isaac there, he made it clear that Rebekah was the new matron of the whole clan.

 

Closing Thoughts: Hesed—Lovingkindness

This is the word translated “kindness” in verse 12. I believe this is one of the most important words in the Old Testament. It only appears 250 times, half in the Psalms, usually translated “steadfast love,” “unfailing love,” and also “lovingkindness.” This is the word put in juxtaposition to Israel’s sin: when they sin, God is full of hesed (Ex 34:6, Num 14:18, Ps 86:5, Joel 2:13). This is a forgiving love, a love unlike anything else. This is the love that is God’s nature. It is also a loyal love, which God specifically shows to Abraham (Deut 7:12) and through him to Israel.


Hesed is often paired with the word emet, meaning truth, trustworthiness, and faithfulness. The pair is often translated “love and faithfulness” but it is so much more. Together, the words mean that God’s love is trustworthy, that His faithfulness is truth, and His commitment is love. This is active, relational, and eternal. It is synonymous with covenant, which is the root of God’s relationship with humanity.


The Old Testament also relates hesed with righteousness. God’s lovingkindness does not overlook sin but deals with it (the “truth” element from above). God is faithful to us, but He is also faithful to Himself. His righteousness guarantees that our final victory will be total, that sin will not corrupt His kingdom, and that we can have total faith in His love and forgiveness.

There is also a common thread of connecting hesed with the Hebrew concept for eternity (or ages) - 26 times we are told that His lovingkindness lasts forever.

The concept of lovingkindness is also projected onto God’s covenant people. We are to have a faithful love to God (as in Deut 6:5 and Matt 22:37) and to one another (as 2 Sam 9). Jesus, though not speaking Hebrew, clearly applies this definition of love to us as proof that we belong to the Father (Matt 5).


As you can see, hesed is an extremely advanced concept for a superstitious, polytheistic, nomadic culture. It is not something that would have been expected of the gods of the day who simply made demands and gave expectations. For Abraham’s servant to project hesed onto Yahweh indicates that Abraham had taught him at least something about his God. Furthermore, due to its connection with “covenant” we see the importance of this marriage arrangement. Isaac’s wife would be a huge part of the covenant chain.


There are other terms for love in Hebrew—aheb/ahaba seem to parallel the more generic way we use “love” today, and dod has the sexual connotation of love embedded. But Abraham’s servant used hesed.

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